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Jobs for All!

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I am now an official member of the Fake News Industry, as I have an op-ed in the New York Times arguing for a federal job guarantee.

The potential is great for helping revive depressed communities. West Virginia could clean up its streams and roadsides while building better housing. Flint, Mich., could construct new water systems and provide stability for private business to support a newly robust community. New York could construct low-cost housing to solve its homelessness crisis.

What must exist in any job-guarantee program is an enforcement mechanism. The initial version of Humphrey-Hawkins allowing workers to sue for a job reminds us of the need for a strong enforcement mechanism. Without a legal requirement to provide work, lawmakers will find political excuses to not implement the program, and it will not serve as a useful solution to automation, poverty and social instability.

True full employment would require an expansive view of worthy labor that moves us beyond nostalgic images of white men employed in steel mills and coal mines. This can range from the building of badly needed infrastructure to giving children music lessons. It can also underwrite our elder care and child care crises. Moreover, while an expanded public sector would be necessary to achieve full employment, the government can provide a variety of incentives to the private sector to increase employment.

Ideally, a permanent Works Progress Administration, with the government directly employing tens of millions of unemployed workers, would not be required. For the last several decades, a corporate culture of quarterly earnings reports has emphasized short-term profit and executive bonuses based on cost cutting. That approach came at the cost of labor. With real competition for labor from the government, corporations would need to invest in long-term planning and job creation and training programs to keep workers.

And if the most drastic claims of automation’s impact on employment come true, our society will have developed a plan to ensure economic and social stability through robust public employment, one that can be funded through taxes on the wealthy benefiting from automation and from those directly employed by the state. For those who cannot work, a limited version of universal basic income-style direct cash transfers can substitute.

Job creation fits American cultural norms around work more effectively than the idea of universal basic income. It avoids politically unpopular forms of welfare while significantly bolstering the welfare state for those who need it. Encouraging private sector job creation would limit the impact on the deficit while adding tax money to the nation’s coffers.

A federally guaranteed job is not the full answer to economic inequality or an automated world. It needs to be paired with a higher minimum wage and labor law reforms that allow workers to unionize and win collective bargaining agreements. Work under the federal job guarantee starting at $15 an hour would help produce those outcomes.

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